From time to time I find myself in a conversation with a musician who says something to the effect of, “I’m not interested in learning music theory because it would ruin my music; I believe that music should just come from the soul.” This idea is not an invalid one per se (provided we take “soul” as a metaphor), but in most contexts it doesn’t hold water.
One of my biggest problems with this view is that in every case I can think of, the musician in question has a vast pantheon of musical idols who knew theory. It’s incongruous to say that music theory inherently ruins music while being a fan of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, The Beatles (at least the contributions of George Martin and, later, Paul McCartney), Randy Rhoads (and many other metal guitarists), Frank Zappa, and countless others (you know, like the entire realm of classical music).
When challenged, some musicians will say that learning some theory is ok, but learning too much is where ruination comes in. I have a problem with this is well, not because the only way to measure “too much” is to pinpoint when a musician becomes less good (so, any theory-extensive person who makes good music cannot have learned “too much”), but because the person saying this always seems to be drawing an arbitrary line right at the edge of the limits of their own knowledge. My response to this is to ask if they know what a “C” chord is, or the note names of the strings on the guitar they play. Where is the “too far” line exactly? It’s ok to know 7th chords, but 9th chords, well, now the creative process has been spoiled?
Of course, the limits of a person’s knowledge correspond to the limits of his or her interest, which is fine. What I don’t like is the insinuation that if someone has a greater interest in theory than s/he does, it must mean that the theory-interested person is not creative. In other words, I don’t like being characterized as some kind of unfeeling, computerized musician just because I happen to have an interest in music that extends beyond the actual sound and emotional impact of it. There are also those whose interest in theory goes well beyond mine. I don’t fault them for that, nor would I expect to be faulted by them for the limits of my own interest. In the end, I either like someone’s music or I don’t. Their knowledge of (Western, Eastern, or whatever kind of) theory – or the extent to which they apply that knowledge during the creative process – is irrelevant to me.
To be clear, I have studied theory obsessively, especially when I was a teenager (it was a good way to help manifest into the world the complex of new sounds in my head), but I don’t consciously use or think of theory when I make music. There are times when it does come in handy, but in the creative moment, I’m just listening.
Here I should point out some examples of people for whom theory was not so useful. A handful spring to mind:
Erik Satie claimed that studying counterpoint in Italy later in life ruined his originality (note that he was already musically educated, but had holes by some standards). What ruined him wasn’t learning counterpoint, however, but was that he had studied it in the most disciplined environment imaginable, and in which exercise after exercise ingrained into Satie a certain way of thinking. In essence, his nature was transformed from an original one to a manufactured one. There is also the possibility that Satie was making an illusory correlation; that is, perhaps the reason he went to study counterpoint is that he was out of ideas, and the reliance he handed to this newly formed mastery did not help renew his creative energies. Also, this was 1905, a time when artists were beginning to reject the Romanticism of the 19th century, which also contributed to his desire to effect a change in direction (or to deny his seemingly inherent Romantic nature; he wanted developmental clarity now, not harmonic splashes of impressions). Whatever the case, I’ve always been against the idea of doing extensive imitative exercises as a way of teaching composition, but I’m all for the teaching of composition itself. So, this is a pedagogical issue, not an issue of content.
Another example is Django Reinhardt, who didn’t know chord names, was basically illiterate, and seemed to have been born with a fully developed musical sensibility. I don’t think theory could have chained down his independent spirit, but it also probably wouldn’t have lifted him much higher either (he also was known to have composed at least a few orchestral works, one of which appeared on a program with a work by Maurice Ravel, and reportedly rivaled that composer’s work in quality; it may have been an organ composition, come to think of it… maybe an interested person will look this up and let us know).
Thom York of Radiohead also comes to mind, whom I recall saying that he thought about learning to “read music” (perhaps an endearingly naïve metonym for “music theory”), but his band-mates, who all do read, were against the idea because it might damage the band dynamic. Perhaps they’re right, since they are working as a whole, the parts of which each contribute some special value. But I bet if York ever ends up going totally solo he’ll start learning more about the inner workings of music (I also bet that by “band” York especially meant “Jonny Greenwood”).
We see then that there are plenty of musicians who don’t need to study theory in order to engage in their creative project, nor will it magically instill creativity. On the flipside, however, there’s at least one musician whose music I love but I think would have benefited from some theory (due to his claims of being in a musical rut): Kurt Cobain.
Another thing going on here is that I don’t relate to how someone can be passionately interested in doing something while denying the value of studying certain areas pertaining to doing that thing. It’s acceptable for (and often expected of) photographers, painters, actors, ceramists, sculptors, and poets to fully explore the technical aspects of their art. Why can’t it be acceptable for musicians? The answer can’t be “because of punk,” because the musicians I’ve had these discussions with weren’t punk musicians. Maybe it’s the general anti-intellectual current running through pop culture in the last, I don’t know, 20 years (by the way, in musical terms this trend seems to be reversing as we see Prog-like music on an upswing, thankfully). Maybe it’s simply fear and insecurity. Or could it be just another example of giving special status and applying different standards to the likes of cultural icons so that they’re exempt from the mortal pitfalls of which the rest of us must be wary? When I think of this idea, I feel that deifying people in this way is an attempt to justify the perpetuation of our collectivistic, conformist culture (despite the US being one of the most individualistic cultures on Earth). That’s another topic, though…
So, before I digress, music theory: if you don’t have an interest, that’s fine by me. What’s not fine is being put down for having that interest myself. Especially by someone standing in front of a Miles Davis poster in their own living room, five minutes after telling me about how unsatisfied they are with where they are as a musician. Now as I think about it, I can’t recall an instance when anyone who was excited about the music they were making told me that they thought learning more about some particular aspect of music (i.e., theory) would be their creative ruin.